William Bolcom is an award winning composer and pianist from Seattle, Washington. Among the awards he has received include: a Pulitzer, multiple Grammys, National Medal of Arts, Composer of the year by Musical America and many others. At a young age, William received piano lessons from Madame Berthe Poncy Jacobson and entered Washington University at the age of eleven to study composition. During his college years, he studied with Darius Milhaud, Leland Smith and Olivier Messiaen. He eventually earned a Doctorate degree at Stanford University. After college, Bolcom began a prolific career with compositions and performances in many styles: ragtime, chamber, operatic, choral, cabaret, symphonic and other types of music. He often performs with his wife and musical partner Joan Morris, who is a very gifted singer. William was a distinguished faculty member at the University of Michigan School of Music from 1973 until his retirement in 2008. Throughout his career, William has written nine symphonies, three operas, four violin sonatas, eleven string quartets and many other pieces of music. William is still producing great compositions today. He earned his Pulitzer with the masterpiece 12 New Etudes for Piano in 1988. His four Grammys were the result of his interpretation of William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience in 2005. I recently had the opportunity to ask him about some of his experiences.
R.V.B. - I see you got started in music at a young age. Were your parents involved in music?
W.B. - Only as amateurs.
R.V.B. - How old were you when you started with an instrument?
W.B. - Four.
R.V.B. - How often did you practice?
W.B. - As little as possible.
R.V.B. - Can you describe how you enjoyed taking piano lessons from Berthe Poncy Jacobson and what remember about her?
W.B. - When I was eight she terrified me - Old European style Swiss-French style, which means never say anything complimentary to the student - but soon we got along wonderfully. She was friends with Poulenc, who would send her scores, and I took them home. She had been close with Eugene Dalcroze and taught me some of his methods, but never in a doctrinaire fashion. My formation was thus French (Schola Cantorum from BPJ) and English (from Verrall who was trained at the Royal College of Music) rather than Russo-German (Juilliard, Curtis, etc.). E.G. my approach to piano was flat-fingered unlike The Russo-Germans in NYC, which shocked the Nonsuch Records producer Teresa Sterne as I remember.
R.V.B. - At the age of eleven you must have been a very advanced student to be studying with seasoned composers such as George Frederick McKay and John Verrall. W.B. - I started composing very early but the saveable stuff dates from C.1950
R.V.B. - Did you start composing and writing songs at this time or were you basically absorbing the knowledge for later use?
W.B. - Not songs so much at first. I just took it all in like a sponge and used it right away.
R.V.B - Where was your first major recital and how did it go?
W.B. When I was six in Seattle, a team from Los Angeles wanted to put me on the child prodigy stage but my parents said no - for which I am very grateful. (I did play at USO functions as a little boy.) So we planned a major recital in 1946 (Age 8) at The Henry Gallery in Seattle. I guess it went well - Beethoven sonata etc. -- Don't remember very well. I was already involved with the University of Washington and would enter as a private student at age 11, taking piano and composition.
R.V.B. - How did you enjoy your college years?
Depends - Some awful, like everyone else's, but not always. I was too busy. I had no money from family at all, and had a small scholorship - The rest I made up by working in jobs: Night operator at a hotel, Dance bands, Burlesque Shows, Church jobs, Fry cook, whatever paid.
R.V.B. - Is there any particular reason you were working with French Composers such as: Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen?
W.B. - I met Milhaud at Aspen in 1957 and we hit it off Immediatly. (it might have helped that MME Jacobson gave me a thorough grounding in French music, but I don't think so.) Messiaen didn't teach composition when I was at the conservatoire but taught musical esthetics, a course I followed OCT. 1960-till FEB. 1961, when I had to return to the U.S. because the draft had called me. (Stanford bailed me out, and I think Milhaud had a hand in that.) I never showed Messien my work except at the yearly showing of one's work at beginnings of each year, him there in concert with Dutilleux and other teachers at the conservatoire. - I was interested in both heavy Avant-Garde and American musical theater and showed part of what became "Dynamite Tonite," an Oopera for actors eventually produced ay Actors Studio Theater in 1963. I felt Messiaen and Dutilleux were horrified. (not Milhaud by the way way. he loved all sorts of music.)
R.V.B. - What stood out in their teachings?
W.B. - Milhaud expected you to have your "chops" which luckily I had - if you didn't it was not so great for the student. I think we got along partly because we both were precocious as kids. His teaching was generalist but he had strong opinions - However we had all sorts of composers in our classes (He never taught one-on-one) and he showed no prejudice stylistically toward or against any of us, only that whatever we do be good. I have stayed close to the family from then on. Daniel - his son whom the Milhauds brought me to dinner to meet in 1960 - and I were close friends from then on till his death this year.
R.V.B. - As a composer yourself - what did you tackle first? Smaller sonatas and chamber music? W.B. - I started string quartets at age 11 and wrote 2 in 1949-50; they are now being reviewed for playing by a young quartet (There are 11 string quartets up to 2003). I wrote all sorts of music for other ensambles and singers as I encountered them. I've only saved piano music from 1958 on, much of which has just been recorded in NYC for NAXOS
R.V.B. - How do you get inspired to write a piece?
W.B. - I love what Milhaud said, pointing to his pen: "That's my inspiration." I'm inspired by the work.
R.V.B. - Do you choose a topic and then write about it or do you set out to write an opera or symphony and the topic emerges?
W.B. - Most things nowadays are requests and commissions, so that mostly determines what I'll write next. My 24 piano Etudes ad the songs of INN. AND OF EXP. are among the few things I did without being asked.
R.V.B. - Where did you meet your wife?
W.B. - In my apartment in 1972. I was going out for Chinese food with a friend and the buzzer rang - She came up with a friend and we've been together ever since.
R.V.B. - That must be fantastic to have a partner to share your passion of music with and perform together...
W.B. - I can't get over my luck, 42 years later
R.V.B. - How was your experience as an educator? Did you enjoy watching students progress into seasoned musicians?
W.B. - Of course. I'm very proud of them, but I vowed never to try to turn anyone into myself (Only people who need that sort of gratification do this but there TOO MANY of them)
10. - Congratulations on your Pulitzer prize award for 12 New Etudes For Piano. What was the process for creating these pieces of work? Did you do one at a time and just happen to have 12 at the end?
W.B. - Kind of both. I wanted, as in the 1st set, to address new technical concerns for each Etude, but the second dozen were more stylistally varied.
R.V.B. - Where was the ceremony held for this major event?
W.B. - Marc-Andr´e Hamelin premiered the whole set in 1986 (I wasn't there) in NYC and would eventually record them, which recording got the Pulitzer. The ceremony as such was held at at a lunch at Columbia University, I think it was the 1ST one ever held for that. (The Pulitzer $$ Aren't Sufficient to generate much fuss compared to some other awards.) I've never had a particurally lucrative Grawameyer-type award, though lots that didn't pay.
R.V.B. - It must have been a fun project to create music for the works of William Blake.
W.B. - Harrowing too. It took me on a whole musical roller coaster.
R.V.B. - I presume that you interpreted different poems and created a music based landscape to match them?
W.B. - That is sort of it.
R.V.B. - You were rewarded with Grammy's for this project. How special was that for you?
W.B. - Probably my major effort as large music peice - As to the Grammy's, The National Arts Award, Etc. Etc. Etc. I think of when they asked Charles Ives about his being awarded the Pulitzer: "Prizes are for children." Amen. No prize will guarantee the validity of any work.
R.V.B - Is there any venues or performances that you have played through the years that really stick out for you?
W.B. - We always loved playing Jordan Hall in Boston and miss it - We were there about six times.
R.V.B - Do you have any other hobbies or things that you like to do other than music?
W.B. - Reading a lot.
R.V.B. - Do you have any regrets of things that you may have missed or not achieved in life?
W.B. - Not really - I always wanted to do what I've done in my life. (I don't miss having children - So many musicians have problems because being gone so much makes it difficult to raise them, but that wasn't why we didn't. It just didn't happen, and neither of us has any regrets.)
R.V.B. - How are you enjoying retirement?
W.B. - People ask that and I answer, "When does it start?"
R.V.B. - Do you still compose music?
W.B. - Oh my yes. A new trombone concerto for Joe Alessi and the N.Y. Philharmonic. A new opera for Minnesota For 2017. Various chamber music, Another concerto, Etc.
R.V.B. - Thank you very much for considering answering these questions. I consider it an honor.
W.B. - Thanks.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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